The man who volunteered for Auschwitz: New bio explores extraordinary life of hero who exposed Holocaust horrors
Famous for smuggling himself into Auschwitz death camp to gather information on the atrocities being committed there, Captain Witold Pilecki was executed in Warsaw by the Stalinist secret police after months of torture and a trial on exaggerated charges of clandestine armed resistance against the Communist regime.
Now, a new biography exploring his extraordinary life is due for release.
Entitled ‘The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz’, the book by US former war correspondent Jack Fairweather delves deep into Pilecki’s past.
Through interviews with those who knew him, Fairweather pieces together “a provocative new chapter in the history of the mass murder of the Jews and an account of why someone might risk everything to help his fellow man.”
After deliberately falling into German hands on 19 September 1940, Pilecki was sent to Auschwitz and there organised a resistance movement among the camp’s prisoners which numbered as many as 1,000 members.
With the number 4859 tattooed on his forearm, indicating his order of arrival out of well over a million prisoners, he witnessed the transformation of Auschwitz from a relatively small prison camp primarily for "Aryans" (that is, non-Jewish Poles - mainly political prisoners) to a chief instrument in the genocide of Jews (and Roma and Sinti).
His reports, smuggled out of Auschwitz with prisoners’ laundry, were among the first testimonies to the horrors of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” though the Allied authorities tended to dismiss them as grotesque exaggerations.
Pilecki escaped Auschwitz after more than 18 months on the night of 26 to 17 April 1942. He remained active in the resistance and was again captured by the Germans after the failure of the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944.
Sent to a prisoner of war camp in Bavaria, he was liberated by the US army and joined the Polish troops embedded in the British occupying forces.
Sent back to Poland in December 1945 to organise clandestine resistance to the Soviet-imposed government, Pilecki organised a network of informers within the Communist security apparatus and the armed forces.
Arrested in May 1947, he was tried for spying for the benefit of foreign intelligence and conspiring to assassinate members of the Communist establishment.
Pilecki denied any violent intentions and claimed his activities were in the service of the legal Polish government in exile rather than foreign intelligence.
Found guilty and sentenced to death, he was shot in the back of the head in the small hours of 25 May 1948.
While his death sentence was annulled in 1990, Pilecki remained relatively obscure until the 2000s.
He was awarded the country’s highest order, the Order of the White Eagle in 2006 by the then president, Lech Kaczyński.
‘The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz’ by Jack Fairweather, is released tomorrow (Thursday 27th June).